Your Weekly Sector News 01/04/22

This week, headlines were dominated by the publication of the Schools White Paper, as each of us got to grips with sixty-pages worth of new pledges and policies. Keep reading to find out how the sector has responded to the government’s aspirations for education, and learn what other developments you might have missed.
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Ofsted Considers 2022 SATs and GCSE Results

Last Friday, the Department of Education announced that this year’s SATs and GCSE results will be shared with Ofsted to judge the impact of curriculum decisions in schools. This decision has proved controversial as leaders argue that the data is so unreliable, ‘it would surely make more sense not to use it at all.’

Due to the pandemic, pupils missed 270 million days of learning in school during 2020-21, and absences have continued to spike this academic year. As a result, sixty percent of Year 6 pupils surveyed by YouGov reported that they are worried about taking their SATs, and many fear that they do not know enough about Maths and English. Headteachers are also frustrated with the situation, as Chris Dyson, head of Parklands Primary School in Leeds, explains: ‘children have had their education disrupted over the last two years and we’re trying to fill any learning gaps as quickly and effectively as we can – SATs are just an unnecessary additional pressure placed on us by the government.’

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), argues that over the course of the pandemic, ‘some schools [were] more badly affected by staff and pupil absence than others. This means there cannot possibly be a level playing field in results from tests and exams.’ James Bowen, director at the school leaders’ union NAHT, adds that ‘SATs should not be going ahead this year’ at all.

However, an Ofsted spokesperson assures schools that ‘we will be particularly careful when considering this year’s data, given the impact of Covid.’

Catch-Up Fund Goes Straight to Schools

After failing to deliver and ensure uptake of the National Tutoring Programme (NTP), the current contractor, HR-firm Randstad, has been axed. From September, all £349 million of catch-up funding will go directly to schools, giving them the flexibility to provide tutoring in ways that work best for their pupils. Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi hopes this move will simplify the scheme and help to finally deliver the two million tutoring courses that were originally promised.

It is likely that Randstad will rebid for a smaller contract when the government launches a procurement process in April for another supplier to run the scheme, this time only as a quality assurance partner. However, one key charity NTP provider said that ‘to win the hearts and minds of the teaching profession, [Zahawi] must appoint a trusted not-for-profit organisation to run NTP. It’s time for the outsourcing companies to back off and let the education experts work their magic.’

Responses to the Schools White Paper

Earlier this week, the government unveiled plans for the future of education in its long-awaited Schools White Paper, entitled “Opportunities for All: Strong schools with great teachers for your child.” To find out what to expect and how your school can prepare, you can read our blog about the key policies here.

In the following days since the paper was published, many have spoken out in support of the government’s ambitions to improve education and equip children with ‘the tools to lead a happy, fulfilled and successful life.’ Others, however, believe that the government’s plans are not ambitious enough.

The Parent Pledge

The Parent Pledge requires schools to inform parents when their child is falling behind and update them on their progress, as the school provides timely, evidence-based support to get pupils back on track. Whilst many were generally in favour of the policy, a survey of over six-thousand teachers found that most schools already implement the expectations outlined in the pledge. Subsequently, only one percent believe this is a “very effective” measure, whilst a total of seventy percent consider it either fairly or very ineffective. Some critics have labelled the pledge ‘a gimmick designed to grab headlines,’ rather than a policy meant to bring about real change.

New Tests and Targets

Earlier this year, the government set a new target to ensure that ninety percent of children leaving primary school will reach expected standards in reading, writing and maths by 2030. In the Schools White Paper, the government set an additional goal to raise the national average grade in GCSE English and Maths from 4.5 in 2019, to 5 by 2030, whilst introducing a new set of numeracy and literacy tests for Year 9 pupils. Critics agree that improving attainment is a laudable ambition, but are disappointed by the government’s silence on child poverty, ‘given what we know about the impact of this on children’s ability to learn in the first place.’ Charlotte Ramsden, President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), believes that in order to improve pupil outcomes, the government must first work to repair a system ‘that does not reward inclusive practices, [leading] to rising school exclusions and a widening of the attainment gap between the most disadvantaged children and their peers.’

Academisation of All Schools

With the vision of creating a fairer and stronger system, all schools will belong to multi-academy trusts by 2030, or at least have plans to join one. The paper states that strong trusts benefit from communities of practice, the sharing of evidenced-based approaches and resources, high quality professional development, and economies of scale, which are used to ‘deliver outstanding literacy and numeracy outcomes for their children.’

At present, just thirty-seven percent of primary schools are academies, in contrast to almost eighty percent of secondary schools. In a system that often feels fraught and fragmented, many leaders across the sector concede that full-academisation may be the best solution. For example, Simon Carter, Director at RM, commented that the centralisation of education ‘can lead to greater efficiencies, reducing pressures and strains from current over-stretched processes, resulting in beneficial outcomes for pupils and staff alike.’

However, after the paper was published, the National Education Union (NEU) met with Nadhim Zahawi to challenge him over the data that backed his case for a fully-trust led system. In their own analysis of Ofsted grades, the NEU discovered that thirty percent of maintained primary schools retain their Outstanding ratings in comparison to just seven percent of those in MATs. As a result, Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, concluded that ‘there is no compelling reason for a school to join a trust.’

In the wake of the pandemic, and the toll this has taken on children’s learning, many expected the government to deliver large and radical changes to revitalise education. Instead, there appears to be an emphasis on strengthening what is already in place. Whilst some believe it is right to prioritise the ‘building blocks of a world class education,’ others feel that the government’s ambition ‘falls short.’ Fortunately, with the insight and motivation that characterises our profession, we are never short of inspiration to keep supporting our children.

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